hands of an ocean paddler

Grampa hands, gunwale bum and slow roasting

My body and mind are going to be pushed to the extreme during crossing my from Cape Town to Salvador in Brazil, and one aspect that people don’t realise is the constant exposure that my skin has to deal with.

Skin problems like buttock irritation, hand scaling and sunburn are the most common issues that ocean-faring adventurers suffer from. You can see from the graph below after a 24-day transatlantic yacht race what skin ailments the competitors developed. Keep in mind these sailors can stand and walk around.

I can’t!

skin lesions


Grampa hands

Scaling is peeling or flaking skin and it’s an unavoidable issue when your hands and feet are wet for extended periods. Paddlers’ hands tend to lose their natural oils from being soaking wet and with the constant squeezing action of gripping the paddle shaft on each stroke. After a while, the skin can form friction blisters as the oils in the skin no longer act as a lubricant between the layers.

The trick to try to limit the loss of natural oils is to pre-oil my hands. Typically, I apply the likes of petroleum jelly or “Dubbin” – a leather oil that was the only way to waterproof those old leather rugby balls – before a paddling race that gets absorbed into the skin. You must allow time for it to soak into the skin or the paddle will behave like a slippery eel in your hands.


hands of an ocean paddler

(Pic above) The hands of an ocean rower.

I will also use gloves to reduce the build-up of blisters but the drawback of gloves is that my hands remain wet when the gloves get wet, so it’s a careful management of the tools to limit hand-scaling and blistering.

Gunwale Bum

The dreaded “gunwale bum” is the one I am most concerned about – for obvious reasons! There are many names for this skin ailment, but the medical term is Folliculitis, which affects the hair follicles of the skin.


gunwale bum

(Pic above) Mild folliculitis (TMI??)

Folliculitis occurs when hair follicles become clogged and infected with bacteria, leading to red bumps and pus-filled follicles. These bacteria usually live on the skin without incident but under the strain of constantly sitting (friction) in salty damp (sweaty) conditions, the bacteria get clogged and irritate the hair follicles – causing bumps that look like pimples. It can range from mildly irritating to completely debilitating, but if left unchecked they can turn into abscess or boils. Should this occur it would be very difficult to sit, let alone paddle!

So how do I combat or limit this painful issue? My first defence is regular washing to keep the follicles clean by removing dirt, oil, and sweat. The problem here is that water is a very scarce resource. I have considered using baby wipes, but they are not ideal as they can be a little harsh on the skin and keeping used baby wipes around for 80 days is not very appealing!

Another method is a barrier cream with an anti-fungal component. As a keen cyclist I use this type of cream on the chamois of my shorts. So, could these creams work for paddling? I won’t have chamois in my paddling shorts and I won’t be wearing shorts (eek!) most of the time, so I would apply directly to my skin.

I have been doing some testing for some time now and these are the products on my test sheet.

barrier creams

(Pic above) Sudocrem, Ass Magic, Madaji Milking cream, Squirt Barrier Balm, Dubbin

The testing ensures I don’t have any negative reaction to the cream, and I can evaluate how they hold up to the wetter conditions of kayaking and how easy they are to wash off.

Sudocrem, Ass Magic, Madaji Milking cream, Squirt Barrier Balm, Dubbin

(Pic above) Sudocrem, Ass Magic, Madaji Milking cream, Squirt Barrier Balm, Dubbin

I have placed them in order of their viscosity. The thickest on the right being Dubbin, which will be only used on my hands.

  • Sudocrem : Nappy rash cream.  Antibacterial/fungal = Zinc Oxide
  • Ass Magic : Chamois cream. Antibacterial/fungal = Zinc Oxide and Tea Tree Oil
  • Madaji Milking cream: Udder cream for cows (also marketed for humans),
  • Antiseptic = Chlorhexidine
  • Squirt Barrier Balm: Chamois cream, Antibacterial = Tea Tree Oil

A big “thank you” to the team from Squirt Cycling Products who arranged a bunch of goodies from their product range for me to test. It’s inspiring and really lekker to have support from local Proudly South African companies. Testing will continue over the next few months before I settle on my favourite.

Sun Protection

My final skincare thought process goes to sun protection. The kayak stroke does not lend itself to an awning for sun protection. While paddling during the day I will be under the powerful rays of the sun. There is literally no place to hide from its relentless force, and not only from directly above but also from its harmful reflection off the water.

The first bit of the crossing, while it’s cooler, I will wear a long sleeve top – like a rash vest. But as I get more into the tropics, where the water is 28 degrees Celsius and the outside temperature – sitting in the sun – gets well into the 30s, a rash vest too will get unbearably hot.

Sunscreen will be my final defence. I favour a spray-on light cream with an SP factor 50 that is also waterproof. I will have to apply the sunscreen multiple times a day, as sweat and water eventually reduces its effectiveness.

For face protection I always wear a wide-brimmed hat, and better yet, I hope to get something like this hat (see pic below) that will shield the relentless and uncompromising glare of the sun from the water off my face.

wide brimmed hat

If you have had any similar experiences or ideas that you would like to share, please feel free to do exactly that.

Hit me up on Social Media Facebook and Instagram @RichardKohlerAdventures or email [email protected]

Keep paddling!